Sergio Busquets has become an key component of the new Barcelona

Posted by Michael Cox

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty ImagesSergio Busquets adds much-needed grit to Barcelona's finesse style of play.

One of the fundamental principles of Barcelona's philosophy is the consistent use of a 4-3-3 formation.

It is their trio in midfield -- the heart of any football side, but particularly one that insists upon possession dominance and bossing the centre ground -- that has always felt most idiosyncratic. In that zone, the club have frequently played three Spanish La Masia graduates over the past four years: Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Traditionally, Busquets was seen as the third of the three, alongside two regular Ballon d'Or nominees. Iniesta was the master, Xavi was the dame, Busquets was just the little boy who lived down the lane. He was Krist Novoselic to Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl. He was Michelle Williams to Beyonce Knowles and Kelly Rowland. He was Michael Collins to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the analogy Roy Hodgson would probably go for.

"The venture was structured for three men," Collins wrote in his autobiography. "And I considered my third to be as necessary as either of the other two."

He was probably right -- who are we to doubt this legitimacy of his space tale? But, inevitably, many viewed his role -- sitting in Apollo 11 while his colleagues went for the world's most famous walk -- as somewhat inferior.

Similarly, Busquets has always understood his own role. Like others, he's constantly amazed by Iniesta's trickery, and he once said that Xavi was "the best midfielder in the world, the most important player on the national team." He's happy to play third wheel.

Pep Guardiola said Busquets was the world’s best defensive midfielder; Vicente del Bosque said if he could be a player, he would be Barca's No. 16.

"Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets," says his teammate Javier Mascherano.

The more you watch Busquets, the more he impresses.

"People who don't like football don't appreciate my game, but I like it," Busquets said. "My team-mates appreciate that I do the dirty work and I know it is necessary." Fair enough.

But this, in truth, is the story of the old Busquets. He's now been performing at an incredibly high level for the last five years -- anyone who has consistently watched Barcelona and Spain over the past half-decade and not appreciated Busquets' contribution is probably beyond help. He's no longer underrated -- everyone rates him.

These days, he's become a different player -- he's more than just an underrated functional part of the side, he's a key figure. Under Martino he's become an all-around threat, someone who roams higher up the pitch when Barcelona don't have possession, rather than simply protecting his defence solidly. His positioning is more variable, and appears to depend upon the role of the opposition No. 10 -- if that man plays as a second centre-forward, Busquets drops in to become a third centre-back.

That was often evident under Guardiola -- who sometimes literally deployed Busquets as a third centre-back against two-man strikeforces. But the opposite is now true, too -- if his opponent tries finding space in much deeper midfield positions, Busquets will press and harry him. His tackling and intercepting statistics are higher than last season, but the raw numbers don't fully explain the difference -- it's not about the frequency of the tackles, but the positions.

After all, Busquets is more than just a defensive midfielder, something he's always maintained. "[My role] depends on the opponents," he told FourFourTwo in 2010. "I can be the only defensive midfielder and try and break up play. Or I can play a little more forward. Whatever the coach wants. I’ll be his man."

Barcelona are more pragmatic under Martino, and Busquets -- the most physical, defensive and sometimes cynical of Barca's midfield three -- is in his element. Perhaps Busquets' aggressive harrying is more noticeable now Barcelona aren't quite so committed to a pressing game -- his combative but adventurous style in the defensive phase of play is exaggerated because other players have become more passive.

In Barcelona's 3-2 win at Valencia in September, for example, Busquets' high pressing was a particular feature. He charged into an early challenge inside the opposition half, won the ball and slipped it to Neymar -- who scored, but the goal was disallowed for offside.

Never mind; a few minutes later he made an interception, passed the ball to Cesc Fabregas who transferred it onto Lionel Messi, and the Argentine converted the one-on-one. The move flowed vertically from a central zone in Barca's own half, to the opposition net, in seven seconds. Busquets' proactive positioning and positive pass was the key.

He prompted the second goal, too -- Andreas Guardado received the ball in his own half, with his back to goal. Busquets pressured him, forcing him to retreat. Many defensive midfielders would have accepted that, then sprinted back into position -- maybe that’s what the Mexican expected. But Busquets pushed harder, kept on hassling Guardado, until his slide tackle simultaneously dispossessed his opponent and pushed the ball to Fabregas. Again, a first-time pass found Messi, who scored. On both occasions, Busquets won possession and passed to the assist giver.

His goal in the win over Real Sociedad was a powerful strike from the edge of the box with his left foot, described by Busquets as the most beautiful of his career. But the interesting thing wasn't the strike -- it was the manner in which he won possession. Seven Barcelona players were ahead of him during a goalmouth scramble, but Busquets pushed forward, anticipated the direction of a clearance, and slammed the ball in. Barcelona used to score after long, drawn-out passing moves. Here, they scored a goal without a single pass.

That's a extreme example, but Barca are clearly a different side this season, and that illustrated Busquets' greater prominence. Xavi and Iniesta remain influential, but Busquets has become Barcelona's second most important player -- don’t be surprised if his aggressive defensive play is crucial against Real Madrid this weekend.

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